How bust sculptor Blair Buswell carved out Hall of Fame career

Taking measurements of inductees -- here it's Thurman Thomas in 2007 -- is an early part of Blair Buswell's process for sculpting Hall of Fame busts. Jason Miller/Getty Images

Blair Buswell is a happy man. As the chief sculptor of the busts for the Pro Football Hall of Fame -- his dream job -- Buswell is usually beaming as he sits with a player or coach to mold his likeness. But he offers each of them one piece of advice before beginning the process: Don't smile.

"Bronze teeth don't look very good," Buswell said. "It's probably not best to do the big open smile because you'll have dark brown teeth."

Of course, some players would not be themselves without showcasing their trademark smiles, and Buswell is always happy to oblige. In 2004, Buswell meticulously shaped and reshaped John Elway's two front teeth after the quarterback initially said they looked like Chiclets. Last year, he took care to measure the famous gap in Michael Strahan's teeth for accuracy.

"I expected that Michael Strahan wanted the gap in his teeth," Buswell said, "but in our first meeting I always say it's better not to have an open smile, but I'll do it if you want me to."

Buswell leaves it up to the inductees to decide whether they want a scowl or a smile to be the image they project to the approximately 200,000 football fans who make the pilgrimage to Canton each year.

"When I go to a player's home there's no expression on the clay bust, so I say, 'OK, do you want to bite someone's head off? Are you glad to be there? Let's talk it out. What kind of an expression do you want on this?'" Buswell said.

"I want them to be comfortable with it. You only get one chance at this."

Many football-playing junior high kids dream big when visiting the Pro Football Hall of Fame for the first time. Buswell wasn't any different, although his dream was.

"I loved to sculpt since I was a little kid," Buswell said. "Going through the Hall of Fame, it kind of hit me that someone is doing these busts and that would be a great job to have someday."

Buswell was voted the best athlete in his high school and, after a Mormon mission, would go on to be a running back at BYU from 1979 to 1981, when the Cougars went 34-4, but he knew his professional career was in the arts. He walked on with the football team after getting an art scholarship, and the team doctor designed pads to protect Buswell's hands. He didn't see much playing time, however, registering one carry for 2 yards in 1981.

"The old standing joke is I played with Jim McMahon and Steve Young, so as a running back I never got the ball," Buswell said. "I didn't get the ball anyway. When they put me in, I'd block."

The shining moment of Buswell's career at BYU, however, came after his final game. At the annual Cougar Club banquet in 1982, Buswell was given an award for being an outstanding student-athlete and was asked to display some his sculptures, including one of McMahon and another of basketball star Danny Ainge, both of whom had completed their senior seasons at BYU a year earlier.

Bill Walsh, who had just won his first Super Bowl as coach of the San Francisco 49ers, was a guest speaker at the banquet, and he was impressed by Buswell's work. Walsh asked if Buswell could do a sculpture of him with then-49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo as a gift to DeBartolo for winning the Super Bowl.

"That was during the strike year, so they both posed for me for me in San Francisco," Buswell said. "When the sculpture was done, Coach Walsh flew me to Youngstown, Ohio, to give DeBartolo his copy of it. He was excited and really liked it. I don't know if he and Walsh had talked about me, but DeBartolo asked what I wanted to do in my career, and I said I would love to work for the NFL and the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He made a call, and I guess the rest is history."

Buswell's first bust for the Pro Football Hall of Fame was of legendary coach Sid Gillman in 1983. Since then, he has created 88 busts, which is second only to predecessor Jack Worthington, who did 144 as the primary sculptor after the Hall of Fame opened in 1963.

Worthington, however, never met any of the men he sculpted. He primarily went off old pictures and used a player's hat size to gauge the size of the head. That's not the case for Buswell, who does no more than four busts per year while overseeing the sculpting of the others by an assistant. Buswell makes a point to meet the newest inductees shortly after they are announced to take pictures and get measurements. Then he'll schedule a posing session at their homes or his studio in Pleasant Grove, Utah. With those sessions running as long as nine hours, Buswell has formed relationships with many of football's legends.

"He's a once in a lifetime kind of guy," said Cris Carter, who was inducted in 2013. "I had no idea he played. He's an amazing guy and very gifted. I talked to some of the other players who worked with him and did my research, and the more time you give him, the better your sculpture is going to turn out -- so he was at my house for most of the day."

There is no Hall of Famer, however, Buswell knows better than Young. The idea that one day Buswell would have to sit down with Young became a running joke between the former college teammates.

"I would run into him as a player and I pulled him aside at the hotel one year after he won the MVP and I said, 'Steve, if you keep this MVP stuff up, you and I are going to spend some time together,'" Buswell said. "He thought that was the biggest joke he had ever heard."

Young, who was selected to seven Pro Bowls and won two MVP awards before being inducted in 2005, is still amazed at his old friend's career.

"Blair was a scrappy player," Young said. "'Scrappy' Blair Buswell. He was a hard-working, tough player who was a great teammate. I'm just glad he didn't hurt his hands. I didn't know he was so talented. I really had no idea. He would always joke with me when he saw me that he would have to sculpt my head one day and then say, 'But your head's so big I don't know if I can.' But neither of us really thought it was possible."

When Young was announced as an inductee, Buswell was there to congratulate him -- and take his measurements.

"When we came into the meeting with the Hall of Fame staff after he was announced, we gave each other a big hug," Buswell said. "He said, 'You told me this was going to happen and I didn't believe you.' It's actually harder for me to do someone I know because I'm trying to put things in unconsciously because I know them so well."

Young, his wife and their three children flew to Buswell's studio for the posing session, which allowed Young to see Buswell's other creations.

"It's amazing how worlds can collide and things can come together like that," Young said. "Here's someone that you knew when you were a kid, and now they're doing something of international acclaim and you can't believe that you both ended up in such interesting places. He is so accomplished."

In addition to the Hall of Fame busts, Buswell's work includes the statues of John Wooden in front of UCLA's Pauley Pavilion, Robert Neyland in front of the University of Tennessee's Neyland Stadium and Charlton Heston in the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.

"When I went to his studio he was doing this huge Western wagon with horses coming through water," Young said. "It was this huge piece of art that had this Michelangelo kind of feel to it, and he was bringing this art to life. I just thought to myself, 'Geez, that's Blair Buswell. I can't believe it.'"

When Eric Dickerson looked at his bust for the first time he smiled.

"I have hair again!" Dickerson said. "I wish I could have my hair back. I wish I could grow it back."

Buswell said one of the hardest parts of creating the busts is looking at a player or coach today and trying to create a younger version of him. He refers back to a wall of photographs set up next to him during the posing session, but it can be tricky turning back the clock.

"John Madden wanted me to bring the sideburns up a little bit," Buswell said. "Terry Bradshaw was just happy to have hair. Some players want me to bring the Afros down a little bit. I have to do them as players, so with Doak Walker I had to age him back 30 years. Jack Butler a few years ago I had to age back 55 years. You're looking at an 85-year-old guy and you're trying to put him in his early 30s."

Deion Sanders wanted his bust to include a bandana, but the Hall of Fame does not allow any accessories.

"I told him you can ask the Hall, but I know the answer," Buswell said. "We've had requests for earrings, neck rolls, eye black, hats and all kinds of things, but we're not trying to single out anybody. Way back, they didn't put Paul Brown in a hat, so they didn't put Tom Landry in a hat. They didn't want those other things involved, but I was joking with Deion during the posing session. I told him, 'I'll tell you what, when you get your copy of the bust you can put a different color bandana on every day.' During the induction ceremony he pulls out a bandana and goes and puts it on the bust. That was fun."

Dickerson's bust doesn't feature the famous goggles he wore as a player, but at his home in Calabasas, California, a pair of his game-worn goggles adorns the bust sitting in his office. Dickerson looks at the bust he has at home every day, but nothing can compare to seeing it inside the Hall of Fame for the first time.

"I had a chance to go and see my bust on display after the induction ceremony," Dickerson said. "I'll never forget it. I had never been inside before and it was getting dark just before the Hall of Fame game, and I walked in by myself and started looking at all the busts, and it was incredible.

"I saw Earl Campbell's bust and then I saw Jack Lambert and then I saw O.J. Simpson, who was my favorite player, and then I looked at mine and I just stared at it. It was almost like I could hear all the old plays being screamed in the huddle over again -- '47 gap! 47 gap!' It was a magical moment for me. I just stood there for the longest time and stared at it, and it was staring back at me."

Buswell still thinks about his first trip to the Hall as a teenager whenever he goes back to Canton and walks past the busts he used to dream about sculpting.

"One of the first times I went there after I had been doing it for a few years, it was not a busy day and I'm walking down and every few was mine and it was an emotional thing. I had to go sit down," Buswell said. "It actually happened. I'm doing what I always wanted to do. When I go back now, all those stories of each guy comes back to you. It's a dream come true. I've been pinching myself for over 30 years."